Case Study: Fatburger North America, Santa Monica, Calif.

When the first Fatburger opened in Los Angeles back in 1952, it was a local hamburger joint with a diner motif. Today, there are more than 100 locations in California and Nevada, with sites planned for South Korea, Dubai, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Fatburger-KitchenEnergy and overall efficiency are important attributes that Fatburger executives weigh when purchasing foodservice equipment. The chain feels these attributes should go hand in hand instead of being mutually exclusive.And the innovative restaurant chain knows it can't rest on its laurels, which is why Fatburger updated its front and back of house and its menu. The net result is more streamlined operations that allow Fatburger to better navigate the economic currents of the day. "We are a quick-casual burger restaurant designed around the localities we're in," says James Newell, vice president of operations. "Our original concept was a hamburger stand, but we've recently moved away from that to a more upscale design."

As if competing in the burger segment isn't tough enough, in the past two years, Fatburger bounced back from bankruptcy protection to achieve double-digit growth. Along with consistency and order accuracy, one of the largest components to its success has been maintaining service time. The chain restricts wait times to between six and eight minutes. "When everything is made to order, service times are crucial," Newell says.

It hasn't been an easy road. Customers have become more discerning in this segment, as evidenced by the boutique burger menu additions at McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. Yet Fatburger does not look to its competitors when adding menu items, because the goal is not to become a "me too" operation.

Fatburger has stayed in the game by updating its menu with more topping choices for its ½-, 1/3- and 1½-pound burgers, in addition to a turkey and veggie burger. "We had to meet the demand for a higher-quality burger," says Thayer Wiederhorn, director of marketing. "The menu and ingredients are what set us apart."

As its offerings evolved and the '50s diner décor transformed into a more upscale, contemporary design that replaced the corrugated metal with wood finishes, the back-of-house look remained essentially the same.

This is not the case with its equipment, however. Fatburger kitchens have been newly outfitted with energy-efficient grills, fryers and charbroilers that provide greater capacities, increased speed of service and lower operating costs. "The production centers on two grills that have provided more consistent temperatures, better cooking service and faster recovery," says Bentley C. Hetrick, vice president of construction and purchasing. "These units produce more product in less time."

Incorporating more energy-efficient equipment into the back of house has been a priority at Fatburger. Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) test data is checked before any purchase is made. Further proof of Fatburger's commitment to energy savings is the chain's hood designs, which are all based on FSTC standards and guidelines.

The focus on energy efficiency does not come at the expense of overall efficiency. Rather, Fatburger executives believe both go hand in hand. "We are always trying to come up with ways to make it easier for employees to do their jobs," Hetrick says. "This newer equipment is opening the door for employees to figure out cooking times."

The chain continues to reevaluate its kitchen layouts. "We strive to set up and build our operation in the most labor-efficient way possible," Hetrick says. "If an employee has to move his hand four inches instead of eight inches to grab something, it will speed up production. The kitchen layout needs to motivate employees to move faster and more efficiently."

Although kitchen sizes vary depending on location, a typical Fatburger cookline is 275 square feet. All sites have open kitchens.

In addition to two grills for preparing burgers and chicken sandwiches, some Fatburger kitchens include countertop flattop charbroilers. Make-up stations store condiments, and a two-battery fryer has a dump station attached for preparing fries, chicken and made-from-scratch onion rings. Hoods measure between 12 and 16 feet long, depending on the store size.

"For the most part, cooklines are standard in all of our locations, although we sometimes have to deviate from the design to fit the space," Newell says.

Kitchens also have separate stations for preparing Fatburger's hand-scooped shakes, available in five flavors.

Fatburger executives evaluate foodservice equipment for performance and efficiency. "We look at what it does and the impact and benefit it will have on our operation," Hetrick says. "We also consider how easy the unit is to operate, clean and maintain. In addition, the performance level and repair history are taken into account. The price benefit is important in terms of what we will get out of the equipment versus what we're paying." Due to limited kitchen space, size is also a factor.

The majority of Fatburger locations are in strip malls, although the chain does have some freestanding sites.

In the shakeout of the burger business, chains that evolve with the times will prevail. "A lot of burger joints open, and a lot will close," Hetrick says. "Those that can execute will stick around."

Grilling Opportunities in the Burger Segment

Q&A: Seth Gross, owner, Bull City Burger and Brewery, Durham, N.C.

Related Articles